BY SEAN CLARK
[This is an ongoing feature in which we compare books with their A/V counterparts. Most of the time, but not always, the book is better than the movie or show.]
I really, really liked The Road when I first read it. It is a dark, emotionally hefty story about a father and son crossing post-apocalyptic America. It handles a lot of themes in ways I hadn’t come across much or at all before. It tells a unique and touching father-son tale so well that I actually gave my father a copy for Father’s Day that year, despite the generally unhappy-if-not-hopelessly-depressing mood of the novel. That is to say, the book made quite an impression on me. Moreover, I don’t particularly like Cormac McCarthy all that much (I’ve also read Blood Meridian and The Crossing, neither of which I’d readily recommend). Still, it was one of my favorite books of 2006.
I didn’t have much expectation for the movie. Much of the appeal of the book for me was how the narration betrayed very little detail of the world. That is, McCarthy did a phenomenal job of covering his world in a blanket of darkness. Reading The Road, you feel almost as if stumbling through a dark forest at night with a candle: when the flame flickers just right, you catch a glimpse of what’s ahead of and around you, but not enough to focus on anything, or rest assured in any sort of safety.
This doesn’t apply just to the physical setting but to the characters as well. They are powerfully rendered, to be sure (indeed, it was the depiction of the father-son relationship that most gripped me), but the writing and characterization are so carefully scant that it’s only barely possible to envision these characters outside of the horrible wasteland setting in which the reader finds them.
This is, of course, a major strength and theme of the book: most of humanity, devoid of civilization and left to scavenge and kill for a meager survival, has lost all context of itself.
I thought for sure the movie would miss this altogether, and thus, suck. Instead, the opposite happened: the movie hits the viewer over head with the flagging humanity for the entire film. This is mostly perpetrated through two avenues: the boy, and the wife.
In the book, the wife is a fragmented collection of memories. We learn of her demise, and know she is on the man’s mind. But she is not prominent. She just comes up sometimes, often in the middle of some horrible occurrence, and he tries to suppress her from his thoughts. He fears that by mourning her he could lose her memory (and his will to live):
Rich dreams now which he was loathe to wake from. Things no longer known in the world. The cold drove him forth to mend the fire. Memory of her crossing the lawn toward the house in the early morning in a thin rose gown that clung to her breast. He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins. As in a party game. Say the word and pass it on. So be sparing. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality.
In the movie, she is Charlize Theron. She takes up a lot of screen time and we see her give up on life while the man (Viggo Mortensen) cannot. Her presence–rather than her absence–works as a foil for the man’s character.
The boy’s relationship with the father is a crucial plot element to both the book and the film. He is the father’s charge, the man’s reason for living is to help the boy survive. The man doesn’t see the boy as a person, he sees him as a treausure to protect. As the story progresses the man becomes increasingly aware of his need to transition from his fierce, instinctual protection of his offspring, to teaching the child how to survive. He does this as a man who has seen his world destroyed. The boy of course knows no other world than the harsh wasteland.
The book strikes a fine balance between their two worldly outlooks, and allows their relationship to slowly accomodate this melding of sensibilities. In the movie, the boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has a lot of personality. He is outspoken in his want to trust and help others. His budding personality slowly rises to conflict with his father’s. The man tries to impress on the boy that he must to learn to survive, but he never really seems to mean it. He wants the boy to remain under his protection. The boy, on the other hand, constantly wants to find the good in others. He craves a humanity he’s never actually known. This theme is present in the book, but there it is subtle; the movie hammers us repeatedly with it:
This was by no means a bad movie. It was well crafted, and certainly far better than I had anticipated it would be. The Road accomplished a lot of depth for a short, stylistic novel, and its manner of delivering this thematic depth doesn’t easily translate to a visual medium. Therefore, it was an okay effort but the book was better.